Valerie S. Malmont: A Life In-Country
The old song ran: "How ya' gonna keep them down on the farm, after they've seen Pareee…" Mystery writer Valerie S. Malmont has not only seen Paris, she's lived in Japan, Taiwan, Laos and lots of other places too. But the place that she likes best is a small town in Pennsylvania farm country that reminds her of an English village.
Malmont writes the fictional adventures of foreign service "brat" Tori Miracle, evoking the spirit of "Golden Age" English mysteries and the realities of a nomad's life. Recently, Crescent Blues asked Malmont how she related art to life and got some surprising answers.
Crescent Blues: Your sleuth, Tori Miracle, is a big city girl who gets caught up in the life -- and deaths -- of a small town in Pennsylvania. How much does Tori's background reflect your own?
Valerie S. Malmont: Tori Miracle and I share similar backgrounds, so this was really a matter of "writing what I knew." Like Tori, I grew up in a foreign service family and lived in several different Asian countries. It was an amazing way to grow up, full of rich experiences, but it was also very difficult in a lot of ways. As a member of the American overseas colony, I was never totally involved in the local culture. I always thought of "home" as that place back in the United States. Then, when I came back to the States, I found it was nothing like I remembered, and I didn't fit in at all.
Like a lot of "foreign service brats" I became adept at making friends quickly, but I avoided close relationships because it was too painful to see friends move on to another assignment after a year or two. Similarly, Tori deals with her lack of roots and has difficulty forming lasting relationships. I've heard from hundreds of other "overseas brats" since the first Tori Miracle book came out, and they often say, "I felt like you were writing about me."
Crescent Blues: How did you deal with the culture shock of being transported from the world of overseas assignments to rural Pennsylvania?
Valerie S. Malmont: My worst culture shock came a long time ago when I was 17 and left Okinawa to attend college in New Mexico. I'd never been on my own, and suddenly I was living in a foreign country where everyone seemed to know the "rules" but me. I'd always had servants and when I joined a sorority and had to do chores, I had no idea of what to do. I remember someone telling me to use some "elbow grease," and this idiot went running around the house asking where the elbow grease was kept. Everyone but me thought it was very funny.
In the United States, I've lived in Boston Mass.; Monterey Calif.; New York; Seattle Wash.; the Washington, D. C., area; and Dayton, Ohio. It wasn't until I moved to south- central Pennsylvania that I felt at home. I believe that's because as a child on Okinawa I read all the English village mysteries of the "Golden Age of Mystery" and imagined myself living in a small English village, preferably in the Cotswalds. When I got to Chambersburg, Pa., it seemed as close to that imaginary English village as I could get in this country.
Crescent Blues: Do you still need to make adjustments, or has the situation reversed itself? Do you find yourself uncomfortable in large cities?
Valerie S. Malmont: I don't feel uncomfortable anywhere. I think adaptability is one of the major benefits of growing up in the foreign service. I love visiting my son in Manhattan, or driving to D.C. for Sisters in Crime, or spending a few days in Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, and then coming home to this peaceful rural community.
Crescent Blues: After only two extended visits to Lickin' Creek, Pa., Tori remains something of a fish out of water. Why do you think the notion of the "outsider" has such resonance for readers in general, and your readers in particular?
Valerie S. Malmont: I'm not sure about "why." To be a little philosophical, which I am usually not, perhaps everyone at some point in their live feels like an outsider, whether it be in high school, in college, working a new job, or meeting the in-laws for the first time. And so we can easily identify with those emotions when we read about them. At a recent high school reunion, I talked to the people I thought had been really popular -- the cheerleaders, class presidents, sports stars -- and they all confessed they felt out of it in school.
Crescent Blues: Do you think Tori will ever fit into the community? Do you want her to?
Valerie S. Malmont: She probably won't fit in any better than I do. I've even had local people tell me I talk "funny -- sort of like a school teacher." And I never seem to wear the right thing. But I am accepted for who I am, and perhaps Tori will be accepted some day, also.
Crescent Blues: The opening scene of your first book, Death Pays the Rose Rent, skewers talk show hosts and guests with equal glee. What was the origin of the scene -- did it derive from your own experience or that of a friend?
Valerie S. Malmont: The funny thing about that scene was that I made it up. It was totally fictitious. Then when the book came out, my son got me an interview on Good Day New York, and the experience was a mirror image of what Tori experienced during her nightmare TV appearance. The limo broke down and I had to run two blocks through the rain to the Fox Studios. There, I was met by an intern who took me to a green room to wait for my time, only she got so involved in reading her paper she missed the cue and I was late coming on. To make it perfect, the hostess looked at me while I was getting miked and asked, "Why are you here?" I couldn't think of why. In fact, I couldn't think of anything at all. It was probably the shortest interview in history.
Crescent Blues: Death Pays the Rose Rent and Death, Lies and Apple Pies raise a number of important social issues: the homogenization of rural America, the environment. The books also touch on the paranormal and the Civil War. How important are these topics to you personally?
Valerie S. Malmont: The homogenization of rural America is one of my major concerns. Twenty years ago when I moved to this small town, it had charm and character, locally owned shops, and real restaurants. Now, most of the local shops are gone, replaced by the big chains, the restaurants are franchises that serve frozen food, and the charm has almost disappeared, probably on the back of the big trucks that roar through the center of town. The farms are disappearing, making me wonder what our children and grandchildren are going to eat in twenty years. The landscape is now blighted with huge "distribution centers." Almost every day an old building is torn down and something modern is put in its place -- making this town look like any other in any part of the country.
The Civil War is living history here in south-central Pennsylvania. Chambersburg was the only northern town burned by the southern army. And I live only 15 minutes from Gettysburg. Every weekend, there are reenactments going on somewhere nearby. It's fascinating to visit an encampment and see how people used to live. One foggy morning, I drove past a line of weary Union soldiers hiking down Route 30. I still wonder if they were re-enactors or some of Gettysburg's famous ghosts.
I guess that brings me to the paranormal. South-central Pennsylvania is one of the centers of mysticism in this country. Gettysburg is reputed to be the most haunted place in America. And the area around Ephrata has several spiritualist centers. The Pennsylvania Dutch have practiced a type of magic called Pow Wow for many years.
I've always had an interest in anything Fortean, and I make a point of visiting haunted places and trying to absorb "atmosphere" in mysterious places like Glastonbury and Avebury in England or the spiritualist village, Casadega, in Florida. The Mark Twain House in New York, where Tori encounters an evil entity before Death Pays the Rose Rent takes place, is a real house on West 10th Street. The history of that house has fascinated me since I first read about it back in the Seventies in a book called Spindrift, Spray from a Psychic Sea by Jan Bartell.
Crescent Blues: Based on Death Pays the Rose Rent, Tori seems to have a genuine sensitivity to ghosts and psychic events. Any plans to develop this further?
Valerie S. Malmont: Since it's an interest of mine, I would imagine it would continue to be an interest of Tori's.
Crescent Blues: In each book, fire engulfs an important Lickin' Creek historical structure. Was this intended as a metaphor for the destruction of rural heritage, or just bad luck?
Valerie S. Malmont: I'd like to say I intended the fires to be a metaphor, but I don't believe I was thinking that way, at least not on the surface. We have had many arson fires here in the valley over the past 15 years. Every time an building is destroyed, an ugly phoenix arises from the ashes -- guess I'm back to the homogenization of rural American theme again.
I was traumatized as a very young child by witnessing a major fire in Boston. We lived across the street from the Coconut Grove Night Club and I watched them lay 500 bodies …